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Constructions of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s
Arthur and George

University of Toulouse – Le Mirail


As is underlined by the use of first names in the title of the novel, in Arthur and George, the emphasis is on the personal. Mispronouncing George’s name sheds light on his blurred, postmodern identity: half Parsee and half English, George still considers himself a “freeborn Englishman” (91) while his supposed peers keep questioning his Englishness. When Arthur tells George: “You and I, George, you and I, we are . . . unofficial Englishmen” (217), Barnes makes it clear that there are those who can play with the codes of Englishness, and make fun of the norm, because they play from within (like Arthur) and those who, being identified as outsiders (like George), are forever longing for an identity they cannot obtain. Arthur and George thus challenges Englishness as a cultural construct, whose end is the maintaining of rigid social structures. Its staple features – the English gentleman and the Victorian code of conduct – might then be described as “invented traditions” or, to use Barthes’s concept, a myth. In order to deconstruct that myth, Barnes lays bare the foundations of Englishness and then questions the legitimacy of the concept as a source for modern identities while subverting the link between ‘felt identity’ and ‘fictional identity’.


Keywords: Julian Barnes, Englishness, identity, invention of tradition, social constructs, myth, stereotypes, gentleman


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